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Schooled

May 18, 2004 2:02 AM

"Once upon a time, in the City of Brotherly Love, there lived a horse called Smarty Jones. He wasn’t much to look at and he wasn’t bred to win at classic distances. But he had a big heart and he loved to win. He won at all distances and each race he got better and better. He never lost. Nobody could beat him."

If that sounds like the start of a fairytale, so be it, because the Smarty Jones story is unfolding as a fanciful tale of legendary deeds come true.

After winning the Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track by 2 3/4 lengths against 17 rivals and then capturing the Preakness on a fast track against nine challengers by a record 11½ lengths, Smarty Jones needs only a victory in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes on June 5 to earn a $5 million bonus from Visa and become racing’s second undefeated Triple Crown winner, the 12th overall, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

Smarty Jones, racing’s "Rocky," is a fragrant breath of fresh air in a game grown stagnant by greed and political in-fighting.

But back to the race. If the Preakness was a fight, they would have stopped it.

Smarty Jones had his foes flattened by the time he reached the eighth pole. Even having his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after winning the Derby couldn’t stop him, nor could the fact that his 78-year-old owner, Roy Chapman, is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from emphysema; his 45-year-old trainer, John Servis, is from the other side of racing’s tracks, traveling on the Triple Crown trail for the first time; and his 39-year-old jockey, Stewart Elliott, presents a hayseed persona that would have played perfectly in "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Combined, Team Smarty Jones is a bland bunch, but they’re genuine, with little to dislike.

Poor Lion Heart was one of those vanquished by Smarty Jones in the Preakness. The courageous pace-setter in the Derby repeated his act at Pimlico, only in the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, his rider, Mike Smith, opted to race wide from the start of the mile and three-sixteenths race, forcing Elliott to go even wider or take the inside route, which he ultimately did. Smarty Jones broke Lion Heart’s heart, like Secretariat did to Sham in the Triple Crown of 1973. Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart’s omniscient trainer, says Smarty Jones may be better than Secretariat. "He’s the Muhammad Ali of racing," Biancone said.

That’s because Smarty Jones has a style that is flawless. He doesn’t come from the boondocks and he’s not speed-crazy. He tracks. And when he makes his move, he leaves no doubt. He’s a like a Barry Bonds home run, minus the show-boating. Smarty Jones is all business. His eight wins have come by a combined margin of 37 ½ lengths, an average of more than 4 ½.

This 3-year-old Pennsylvania-bred chestnut son of Elusive Quality-I’ll Get Along won’t win any beauty contests, especially with the four bandages he wears when racing. But don’t let that fool you.

"If you look at the horse physically, from a horseman’s eye, he looks unbelievably healthy and he must be awfully sound," said trainer Doug Peterson, who conditioned the last undefeated Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, in his 4-year-old campaign. "He’s also got the pedigree."

Peterson was speaking of Elusive Quality, who stands at Gainsborough Farm near Versailles, Ky., for $50,000, with a bullet.

"People really underestimate his pedigree," Peterson said of Smarty Jones. "Elusive Quality is hard to book to now, and after this he’ll be even harder to get to as a stallion. But Elusive Quality’s progeny perform unbelievably well in Europe and Smarty Jones has the pedigree to be a race horse. He’s not by nothing out of nothing. His breeding makes him legitimate. He’s the real thing."

And that’s what this country needs right now, reality that warms the heart.

"That was a great performance," said jockey Pat Valenzuela, who won the 1989 Derby and Preakness on Sunday Silence. "This is good for racing."